Ever wanted to lift the lid on everyone’s favourite radio drama? The team behind The Archers – editor Sean O’Connor, writer Joanna Toye, archivist Camilla Fisher and agricultural expert Graham Harvey – were at the Cheltenham Literature festival earlier today, revealing secrets from behind the scenes of the nearly 65-year-old rural soap.
So, what interesting tidbits did we discover about life in Ambridge?
1. Marjorie’s MOT
Archivist Fisher’s encyclopaedic knowledge of everything Archers ensures a smooth continuity to the show – but the odd thing does slip past her. Like the time Marjorie Antrobus had her car tested a little prematurely.
“She was a bit fussy and liked to have things in order,” explained Fisher, “and she had her MOT done and I’m afraid it was done four months in advance of when it was due. We missed that one… we got a lot of letters. I had some association with Top Gear at the time, so I went and checked with them. Did you know you can actually have your MOT done four months in advance?” We did not.
2. Brookfield’s bedrooms
The Archers has built up a complex architectural landscape during its six-and-a-half decades on air, but disputes often occur among the soap’s millions of listeners. “There’s a very interesting debate at the moment about how many bedrooms Brookfield has got,” said editor Sean O’Connor.
“Generally, former editors and writers would leave things quite vague and actually it’s never been discussed how many bedrooms it has. And then about ten years ago, whenever Ben arrived in Brookfield, another bedroom appeared and because they’d never said it was only three bedrooms they could just say there were four. And now that Pip’s sleeping in the dining room, people are saying, ‘but there were only so many bedrooms at Brookfield?’ They’ll say we’re incorrect but in fact the archive says we’ve never said.”
3. Secrets of straw
The Archers use all sorts of rural sound effects – but some come about through unexpected means. Like straw which, according to O’Connor, is “our symbol of where we’ve got to in the making of radio. What we use for straw is old reel-to-reel tape so we’re treading on our work! Now it’s digital but [the reel] doesn’t disintegrate so we use that.”
4. Aga vs Ikea
The Archers studio is certainly an eclectic place, especially when it comes to recreating the characters’ kitchens to represent their backgrounds. “There’s an Aga for the posh characters like Lilian and Jennifer and the Archers,” revealed O’Connor, “and there’s a cheap Ikea electric cooker for the Grundys.
5. Shula’s choice
A true Archers fan could never forget the moment when Shula (Judy Bennett, below) picked Alistair Lloyd over Dr Richard Locke. But it could have been so different, if not for a pesky traffic jam. Writer Joanna Toye revealed, “When Shula famously had to choose between Dr Richard Locke and Alistair the vet, whom she’s now married, the writers who were passionate about Shula marrying Richard and moving to Manchester were delayed. There was a delay on the M5 coming up to a story meeting so the writers who would have argued Shula’s case to run off with Richard were prevented from being there.” And the rest is history.
6. Forward Planning
Ever wondered how The Archers team plan the interweaving world of Ambridge? Well, it’s a complicated process. Editor O’Connor has meetings once or twice a year to create a long-term plan before getting together with the writers for four to five weeks of advance planning with a document that lays out where the story’s going to go. “As a writer, you come to the meeting with your pitch for your week already prepared so you know the stories and how far the story is going in your bit,” said Toye. “That’s crucial because you mustn’t steal things from other people’s weeks. You can invent little bubbles that happen within your week but they must be closed off.”
And where do these meetings take place? “It’s very civilised and we do it in a church hall, which is a little bit like being in Ambridge,” revealed O’Connor. “We had our Christmas meeting the other day and we usually meet in a church hall which is like the one in The Vicar of Dibley. It’s very charming.”
7. News alert!
What happens when a major news event takes place that The Archers simply can’t ignore? “We’ve always done these things called topical inserts,” explained O’Connor. “What we do is we look at the scripts for that evening, we find two actors we can locate together in the same studio, we get a writer to re-write the scene in a kitchen and we record it in the afternoon and put it in the show that goes out at 7 o’clock. So we can respond to real events like the news.
“We did quite a simple one a few weeks ago about the immigrants coming over – not saying anything political at all but just doing what people would be saying in shops and pubs all over the country, which is that they were upset and anxious about it and felt helpless. It wasn’t a direct reference but it was just to echo how we felt many people were feeling at the time.”